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My 55-m.p.h. Birding Career Reaches a High Water Mark

By Hugh Powell
Aplomado Falcon
Aplomado Falcon by Hugh Powell.

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Whipping down the road to Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, we knew we were in prime Aplomado Falcon habitat. Sam drove, and I kept my eyes on telephone wires, fenceposts, and the spiky palm tops scattered through the dry grassy fields.

Harris’s Hawk. Black Vulture. Kestrel. Then I was yelling:

“Right there Right there RightTHERERIGHTTHERE!!!” and Sam was stomping on the brakes. An Aplomado Falcon sat facing us on an old wooden ranch gate, its “waistcoat” markings as dark as a Rough-legged Hawk’s, but the rest of it a delicate creamy orange.

Bus tours led by the world’s best birders are a great way to see species you’d otherwise miss, but there’s nothing like the feeling of bagging your own long-hoped-for bird. When I was in sixth grade we lived in southern New Mexico, and every time we drove to El Paso my dad would instruct us to keep our eyes peeled for aplomados. This day, some 25 years later, was the first time it ever paid off.

We watched for ages as the bird looked back at us, or launched itself to cruise down the fencerow on easy wingbeats. Aplomado means “lead-colored” in Spanish, and this falcon is much lighter than a peregrine: almost powdery gray on the back with a neat white trim running down the trailing edge.

Even though aplomados are on the Endangered Species List – yet another near-casualty of the pesticide DDT – you couldn’t really call this bird a rarity. The Peregrine Fund has been captively breeding the birds since about 1982, and they’ve released some 1,400 into the wild in South Texas, West Texas, and the Desert Southwest. At last count there were 73 in South Texas, including 31 breeding pairs, the Peregrine Fund reports.

The bird we saw had an aluminum tag on one leg, indicating it was a successfully released bird (though nearly a third of resightings this year were of unbanded, wild-fledged birds). I normally feel a tinge of regret at seeing a band, a small nick taken out of a bird’s  wildness.

But as we pulled away and I went back to scanning the tawny fields, I realized that this is why we have an Endangered Species Act: To make the rare and wonderful familiar again. Years ago I yearned after Aplomado Falcons because they were so hard to find. Now they’re here again, back in the world of fencerows and field mice.

Let them be common, that’s what I say.

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